by Ted Noonburg, CFII

After attaining your Private Pilot certificate, the next step for many pilots, and certainly for any aspiring pro pilot, is to earn an Instrument Rating. Every student pilot and new private pilot has likely heard the lengthy and often complicated communications between ATC and IFR traffic and wondered what those pilots were talking about. For me, IFR flying was pretty intimidating right off the bat. Just the thought of being on an instrument flight plan threw me off of my game. I often wondered, “Will I be able to understand and execute all of these ATC instructions? Will I annoy controllers with my indecisive communications and lack of knowledge? How will I even know when I’m doing something wrong?” 

Our Elite PI-135 being used by a student for instrument training, with instructor Demian Harris.

Through time and experience, I was able to overcome these hurdles and earn my Instrument Rating. Now that I’m a flight instructor teaching others how to fly IFR, I enjoy sharing what I learned as a student with my own students. 

  1. Use a simulator. The FAA currently allows up to 10 hours of training toward the Instrument Rating to be accomplished using a basic aviation training device (BATD) like our Elite PI-135. On the sim we cover a wide range of instrument skills and procedures, including holding patterns. Each task is relatively easy to learn and execute when tackled one at a time on the sim, but when you try to learn these procedures in flight, with so much else going on, you can’t just hit the pause button and talk about it with your instructor. You have to keep flying the airplane. I’ve found that the best way to wrap my head around the big picture and situations that arise on an instrument flight plan is to learn first on the simulator, and then follow that with in-flight practice. 
  2. Fly with a safety pilot. During my own instrument training, I liked to go flying with my fellow flight students to practice what I’d been learning with my instructor. Anytime you choose to wear a view limiting device while practicing instrument procedures in flight, you’ll need to have a qualified safety pilot by your side to serve as your “seeing eye dog” during the flight. I’d ask my safety pilot to present me with different situations where I’d have time to react and think things through without the added pressure of complying with a real ATC instruction on an actual IFR flight. Over time, this experience was key to making every hour in the aircraft much more beneficial. We’d land and swap seats so that I could also play the role of ATC. I found this practice to be beneficial as well, especially as I looked forward to becoming a flight instructor.
  3. Act like a pro. Feeling overloaded and not prioritizing tasks was another issue I found myself initially struggling with during my instrument training. When you’re flying IFR, unexpected situations will arise and you’ll have to respond accordingly. For example, a wind shift on the ground might result in a runway change, so the approach you had briefed goes out the window and you have to brief a different approach. Perhaps ATC assigns you a hold en route, and you need to configure your avionics and prepare to enter the hold. No matter what happens up there, always remember that you are the pilot in command, not the controller. You are the one flying the plane! If you need extra time to get organized and make a decision, run a checklist or brief an approach, don’t be afraid to let ATC know. Two of the most powerful words for any IFR pilot are “standby” and “unable.” Remember that ATC is there to serve you, not the other way around. A good controller will even assist you by advising you of the active runway, reading you the current ATIS, or listing the approaches available at your alternate airport. 

While IFR training may seem like a whole new world, using a simulator, flying with a safety pilot, and acting like a pro are keys to your success. Many professional athletes utilize cross training to improve their game, why shouldn’t pilots? These training methods have consistently been proven effective over time, and help students to efficiently master the fundamentals of instrument flying.